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From “Learning from the ‘lifeworld’”. Published in The Psychologist, August 2015.

Please cite as follows:


- Morrow, R., Rodriguez, A. and King, N. (2015). Colaizzi’s descriptive phenomenological
method. The Psychologist, 28(8), 643-644.

Colaizzi’s descriptive phenomenological method

Rosie Morrow (Postgraduate Student, University of Huddersfield) Alison Rodriguez (Senior


Lecturer, University of Huddersfield) and Nigel King (Professor, University of Huddersfield)

Descriptive phenomenology is concerned with revealing the “essence” or “essential structure” of


any phenomenon under investigation – that is, those features that make it what it is, rather than
something else. By far the best known descriptive approach in psychology is that of Amedeo
Giorgi (1985), who is widely credited as a pioneer in bringing phenomenological thinking into
psychology. Giorgi’s method can be seen as a form of distillation, in which the analyst step by
step sifts away everything that is not essential to an adequate description of the phenomenon. It
is, however, not the only descriptive phenomenological method in the social and human
sciences. We focus here on a method proposed by Colaizzi (1978), which is little-known in
psychology but widely used in other disciplines such as the health sciences. We argue that the
method has considerable potential for qualitative psychologists, especially those coming fresh
to descriptive phenomenology.

Colaizzi’s (1978) distinctive seven step process provides a rigorous analysis, with each step
staying close to the data . The end result is a concise yet all-encompassing description of the
phenomenon under study, validated by the participants that created it. The method depends
upon rich first-person accounts of experience; these may come from face-to-face interviews, but
can also be obtained in multiple other ways; written narratives, blogs, research diaries, online
interviews and so on. The stages are illustrated in the table below:
From “Learning from the ‘lifeworld’”. Published in The Psychologist, August 2015.

Table 1. Steps in Colaizzi’s descriptive phenomenological method

Step Description
1. Familiarisation The researcher familiarises him or herself with the data,
by reading through all the participant accounts several
times
2. Identifying The researcher identifies all statements in the accounts
significant statements that are of direct relevance to the phenomenon under
investigation
3. Formulating The researcher identifies meanings relevant to the
meanings phenomenon that arise from a careful consideration of
the significant statements. The researcher must
reflexively “bracket” his or her pre-suppositions to stick
closely to the phenomenon as experienced (though
Colaizzi recognises that complete bracketing is never
possible).
4. Clustering themes The researcher clusters the identified meanings into
themes that are common across all accounts. Again
bracketing of pre-suppositions is crucial, especially to
avoid any potential influence of existing theory.
5. Developing an The researcher writes a full and inclusive description of
exhaustive the phenomenon, incorporating all the themes produced
description at step 4.
6. Producing the The researcher condenses the exhaustive description
fundamental down to a short, dense statement that captures just
structure those aspects deemed to be essential to the structure of
the phenomenon.
7. Seeking verification The researcher returns the fundamental structure
of the fundamental statement to all participants (or sometimes a sub-
structure sample in larger studies) to ask whether it captures
their experience. He or she may go back and modify
earlier steps in the analysis in the light of this feedback.
From “Learning from the ‘lifeworld’”. Published in The Psychologist, August 2015.

Morrow (2014) used Colaizzi’s method to explore the lived experience of camping, with a
particular interest in its impact on relationships. While there is a substantial literature on the
use of structured camping-based interventions as a form of therapeutic intervention (e.g. Desai,
Sutton, Staley & Hannon, 2013), there is very little about how people experience everyday
unstructured recreational camping. Four participants were recruited on the basis that they had
recently embarked on an unstructured camping trip. Through using Colaizzi’s method, five
themes were identified: ‘Getting away’, ‘relationship maintenance’, ‘tranquillity and relaxation’,
‘appreciation of the natural environment’ and ‘freedom and adventure/exploration’. Following
the seven step process, an exhaustive description was created, which was then condensed into a
fundamental structure of the lived experience of camping, which we reproduce below:

‘Camping provides the ideal escape for friends and couples alike. The tranquil and
relaxing environment provides the ideal setting for relationship maintenance and
reinforcement with friends and partners, whether there are issues to resolve or
otherwise. The freedom experienced by individuals encouraged adventure and
exploration, which in turn allowed them to appreciate the natural environment.’.
(Morrow, 2013:49).

While the fundamental structure is the end-point of the analytic process, the main themes from
which it is derived are themselves useful to explore and present. Thus in Morrow, Rodriguez
and King (2014) we focused particularly on the theme of “relationship maintenance”.

The final step in Colaizzi’s method, returning the results to the participants, is a controversial
one, criticised by Giorgi (2006) who stated that the researcher and participant inevitably have
different perspectives - the researcher from a phenomenological perspective and the participant
from the ‘natural attitude’ (our everyday taken-for-granted perception of the world). This
echoes a wider debate in qualitative research as to the value of “respondent validation” or
“member checking”. We would certainly agree that any notion that participants can simply
rubber-stamp an analysis as “correct” is untenable. Nevertheless, given the aims of descriptive
phenomenology, it is not unreasonable to expect that they should be able to recognise their own
experience in the fundamental structure.
From “Learning from the ‘lifeworld’”. Published in The Psychologist, August 2015.

Descriptive phenomenology is especially valuable in areas where there is little existing


research, as was the case in the example we have given of the experience of recreational
camping. For psychologists, Colaizzi’s method offers a clear and systematic approach; its
thematic nature may be more familiar and accessible than the “distilling” style offered by Giorgi.
From “Learning from the ‘lifeworld’”. Published in The Psychologist, August 2015.

References

Colaizzi, P. (1978). Psychological research as a phenomenologist views it. In: Valle, R. S. & King,
M. (1978). Existential Phenomenological Alternatives for Psychology. Open University Press: New
York.

Dessai, P., Sutton, L., Staley, M., & Hannon, D. (2013). A qualitative study exploring the
psychosocial value of weekend camping experiences for children and adolescents with complex
heart defects. Child: Care, Health and Development, 40(4), 553-561.

Giorgi, A. (ed.) (1985). Phenomenology and Psychological Research. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne
University Press.

Giorgi, A. (2006). Concerning variations in the application of the phenomenological method. The
Humanistic Psychologist. 34(4), 305–319.

Morrow, R., Rodriguez, Al., & King, N. (2014). Camping: A tool for relationship maintenance?
International Journal of Therapeutic Communities, 35(2), 48-55.

Morrow, R (2013) A study to explore the lived experience of camping and associated effects of
escapism: A green exercise approach. Masters thesis, University of Huddersfield.Available at:
http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/20328/1/rmorrowfinalthesis.pdf